Part of connecting on a human level is understanding the idea of offering condolences in times of tragedy. Offering condolences does not preclude any other action or activity, but it does say to those affected that you are caring for them in the moment, just as one person to another.
Many people in the world offer condolences by saying that their thoughts and prayers are with others. This is a common and very human expression of sympathy for those who have and are suffering, especially from the loss of a loved one—no matter the cause of the loss.
For nearly a decade now, there has been a growing pushback, especially among partisans from the left, against the utterance of the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” According to these voices, thoughts and prayers do not constitute appropriate action nor drive effective change. Depending on your views regarding the purpose and practicality of prayer, this may be a valid criticism. Whether or not this is true, the broadness and level of intensity of the criticism is based on a mistaken (or disingenuous) notion that offering thoughts and prayers precludes any further or additional action… or has no effect on the person offering the prayer.
Quite the contrary: it is often the catalyst for reflection and subsequent deeper commitment and effort to effect change. It is evident, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to draw much strength from his devotional prayers in driving change during the civil rights movements. Vanderbilt University professor Lewis Baldwin observed:
“Prayer was King’s secret weapon in the civil rights movement… Dr. King taught us about the importance of prayer, not only as a part of our own personal devotional life but… also prayer must be a part of any movement for social action.”
It is difficult to credibly argue with Dr. King’s impact on policy despite his emphasis on prayer. In such context, memes such as this fall a little flat:
Policy is one consideration, but something prayer accomplishes is that it consoles suffering people in the moments of great suffering. No one offers condolences to someone stricken with grief by saying they are working on policy change. (Try consoling the weeping mother at the funeral of a child killed by a drunk driver by telling her, “I’m working on policy change!” and see what kind of looks you get.) The two activities are not mutually exclusive, and it is possible for people to be involved in both. But prayer is one of the first things that allows people to believe that they can have a hand in change for positive good.
C.S. Lewis refers to Pascal’s statement that “God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality,” when he says:
“But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.”
Sadly, it would appear that the people criticizing others for offering thoughts and prayers in a very human expression of sympathy have some other darker issue going on. Not only is their criticism of thoughts and prayers likewise not policy change, it is an expression of pettiness and misdirection of anger. Who makes more proclamations condemning well-wishers than they do condemning the perpetrator of the act that actually caused the tragedy? Count how many times you see someone post that thoughts and prayers are useless (or even harmful), and compare that to the number of times you see posts condemning the Uvalde shooter, for example.
This phenomenon comes from the leftist tendency to politicize even the most basic of human interactions. The common refrain used as a justification for this denial of thoughts and prayers represents the stance that the attack is on politicians that hide behind the statement rather than take legislative action.
As general pushback against this sentiment, I recently posted a statement on my personal Facebook page, and the first response I received was from a leftist which was illustrative.
My post: Yes, “thoughts & prayers” aren’t “policy change.” But they’re what humans offer each other in times of tragedy. Get over it.
Leftist response: Good advice – much like Trump dancing on stage at the NRA convention, right after reading the names of the dead Uvalde students. He “got over it” pretty quickly, it seems. Thoughts and prayers!
It doesn’t require an overly detailed read of my post to determine I was speaking broadly in terms of “human” reaction to tragedy. Yet the leftist response focused in on the NRA and Donald Trump (neither of which I mentioned), as though all the sympathy that Americans might feel for each other in the Uvalde aftermath is meaningless when held up against the holy crusade against guns… and of course Donald Trump. How do the actions of particular political figures or organizations negate the desire and courtesy of private individuals to offer condolences?
This is not an outlier type of response in the public square. A quick survey on Facebook and Twitter will reveal how widespread this well-wisher shaming extends. In fact, I first came across a variation of the meme posted on LinkedIn (ostensibly a social network for professionals about work and careers). Does this fit LinkedIn’s mission? Why, of course it does, as long as you’re wearing your “everything-is-political glasses” through which you view all human interaction.
Deep down, leftists have difficulty acknowledging that there can be some authority other than the State that frames people’s interactions with each other. Therein lies one of the underlying causes of their dismissal of “thoughts and prayers”; if one is going to entreat an authority to address an issue, it had better be the State you’re talking about, and the action better be legislation. And it had better be legislation in favor of their particular viewpoint, otherwise you’re a bigot, ‘phobe, or extremist. That, however, is a line of thinking best addressed in another article (or three). The takeaway from the anti-thoughts-and-prayers conversation is simply this: if you ever find yourself in a group (either real of virtual) of people (friends or strangers) and you know that some of those people have suffered great loss, please do not hesitate to offer them your condolences of thoughts and prayers… regardless of whether you plan to provide additional supportive action or not. I know that in that moment, I would greatly appreciate the kindness of your words, and the fact that people are willing to connect with me in a very decent and ancient human way.